Select Page

Fish and Basketball with Joe Blodgett

Feb 22, 2024

by Andrea Tulee, CRITFC Communications

Today I will be interviewing Yakama Nation Fisheries Project Manager Joe Blodgett, talking with him about a new state-of-the-art fish passage structure at the Cle Elum Dam and also about his experience as the head coach of the Wapato High School girls basketball team.

Hi Joe, can you introduce yourself and share a bit of what lead you into the work you do?

Sure, my name is Joe Blodgett, I’m an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation. I work for the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program as the Yakama Klickitat Fisheries Project Policy Coordinator, and I’ve been in my current position for the past four years.

I’ve been with the fisheries department since 1989, actually started off as a culturist and managed some of the hatcheries that we have here and just continued to work. We had a big group of retirements following a lot of great leadership we’ve had in the past and I’m pretty excited about the work that we’re doing here at the fisheries department and continuing that legacy of the efforts that was started by past leadership.

Today I’d like to focus on the Cle Elum watershed. This area had historically served as important habitat for sockeye salmon in the Yakima River Basin. But in 1933, Cle Elum Dam was built, blocking salmon and other anadromous fish from this important spawning ground and nursery lake. Now the Yakama Nation is aiming to restore this ancient migration return. Can you tell me how the extirpation of sockeye salmon in the Cle Elum watershed impacted the ecosystem and why this restoration is a high priority to the Yakama Nation?

Cle Elum Dam and Lake Cle Elum lie within the U-shaped glacial valley of the Cle Elum River, which was created in the Pleistocene era by the advances of alpine glaciers. Cle Elum Dam is an earthfill dam constructed at the end of a natural lake that forms a reservoir with an active capacity of 436,900 acre-feet.

The sockeye salmon were one of the highest returning anadromous fish to the basin and not just the Columbia Basin, but the Yakima Basin as well. With that you’re bringing in a lot of cultural significance to the tribe with the food that they offer, but also, you’re bringing in a lot of ecology importance with bringing in the nutrients from the ocean and distributing them through the high mountain reservoirs and streams where it’s able to trickle down all of those nutrients and continue to sustain the entire basin.

When you take a big element like that out of the system it really affects what’s able to survive in this basin. So not only are the sockeye important to us for harvest opportunities and are some of our first foods, but they were very vital to the health of the whole ecosystem here in the Yakima system. Once we blocked the sockeye from going into the lakes it was not possible for them to return and spawn and so they were eliminated from the basin.

We have a hard push to re-introduce the fish and we’re collaboratively working with a lot of agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology to rectify a lot of the mistakes that we’ve had in the past management of the Basin.

Dams impact salmon in many ways throughout their lifecycle. Probably the most extreme is when a dam is built without a fish ladder and blocks all access, like at Cle Elum Dam. Can you talk about what fish passage is and how difficult is it to put in ways for fish to get around a dam after the fact?

Cle Elum Fish Passage Facilities and Fish Reintroduction Project at Cle Elum Dam, WA.

Sure, I’ll speak specifically to the Cle Elum because we are talking about that basin. The original Cle Elum Lake was once free flowing, and it opened up to a lot of habitat above the lake. When we decided to irrigate this basin, storing water was a high priority so they put a dam up to increase the storage capacity of the lake, which completely blocked the water from freely moving in and out of the system. What that did was it created a blockage for not only the adults that could not get back up there because there was no fish ladder for them, but it also blocked the juvenile fish from migrating out of there. So, if a fish successfully did get into the lake and spawn there was no way for the smolts to migrate out of there because there was a dam front of them.

We’ve put in a temporary flume now, but it only operates when the reservoir is at full capacity and that’s only for a couple weeks out of the year. There’s a new inventive, innovative system that’s being put in place right now that will allow the smolts to migrate out, which is what our interview is focused on today. As far as a ladder going up over the dam, it’s too high for us to build a normal fish ladder, so we’re going to have an adult fish trap there where we’ll trap the fish, put them on a truck, and drive them around the dam and release them in the reservoir to allow them to go up and spawn.

Dams are creating problems throughout this whole Columbia Basin and Yakima Basin. They’ve significantly changed the water system where fish cannot really move up and down the system like they used to, and it makes great habitat for a lot of the predators that love to go out there and take the opportunity to get their food. So we’re working aggressively to get passage in the entire Yakima Basin. We’re working collaboratively with the Bureau of Reclamation to open passage to all of the areas where fish were once allowed to migrate to. It’s going to take time but at least it’s in the first phase of the planning and we’re optimistic that this is going to make a big difference with our salmon populations.

Cle Elum Passage and Reintroduction

I recently learned about the revolutionary fish passage in Cle Elum that you were talking about earlier which was collaboratively developed by the YN, Reclamation, Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, uniquely suited to help return fish to their historical home in Cle Elum Lake. It’s known as the Cle Elum Fish Passage Facilities and Reintroduction Project and has been steadily under construction since 2015. Can you tell us a bit about the uniqueness of this major effort and some of the outcomes that your fisheries staff is expecting to see once it is completed?

The new helix design fish passage at the Cle Plum Dam. Photo courtesy US Bureau of Reclamation.

We’re really excited about this project. They are going to put it into the test phase this next spring and if everything goes well, the next year we’ll have it fully operational. This reservoir has been blocked and it’s a deep reservoir that does a lot of storage for irrigation purposes. Once it was blocked obviously the fish could not move out of the system anymore. There was no way to just put a hole in the dam and allow fish to go out because they would not be able to find it. So there was some high-level engineering solutions that had to be developed by the Bureau of Reclamation and Yakama Nation had their biologist heavily involved with this process as well in trying to plan how to overcome the issues.

The system that they developed was built in six tiers so it’s a lot like a parking garage that goes around in a circle. The fish will enter in a tunnel—whichever one is open at that time depending on the water level—and the fish will enter and just move out down that spiral on the helix to a fish passage area and out to the river. They’ll be able to go out of the system regardless of what level the lake is.

Right now, the only way the fish are able to get out is if the lake’s at full capacity and spilling over the top of the dam where we have a little chute there that diverts the fish back to the river. It’s successful for a couple weeks out of the year, and a lot of times it doesn’t occur at the right time when the smolts are trying to migrate out. The new helix system will allow the fish to migrate out volitionally, which means they leave on their own. With that, we’re opening up miles of habitat above this reservoir for not only sockeye but other anadromous fish such as steelhead, spring chinook, and coho. We’re excited about the project, and I think that it shows what we can do when we work collaboratively and find out-of-the-box solutions for these problems that we have.

This facility sounds like it will be a major game changer. You spoke a little bit about the reintroduction part of the process. Can you elaborate on these efforts and what the YN is doing for the restoration of these runs that were lost within these blocked areas?

L to R: Yakama Nation Tribal Councilmember Nate Pinkham, Tribal Council Chair Gerald Lewis, and YKFP Policy Coordinator Joe Blodgett.

Yakama Klickitat Fisheries Project, the YKFP, has an initiative, it’s an ‘all stocks initiative’ where we want all of the anadromous fish that were once in the basin to return to be self-sustaining and harvestable, and we want to make the system like it was. We want to get it back to performing the way nature intended it to perform. We’ve had a few different species of salmon that have gone extinct in the basin, including sockeye, summer chinook, and coho that were that were eliminated from the basin for various reasons. A lot of it had to do with water flows and temperatures, and we’ve just started to aggressively reintroduce those fish to the basin. Since these efforts began, the coho salmon have come back and are now one of the highest returning populations that we have in the Yakima Basin.

We also have the ‘MRS’ Melvin R. Sampson facility online as a supplementation facility that are actually using wild returning coho to supplement that population so we’re on the right track with that part of the population. We’ve introduced summer chinook and we’re getting a couple thousand fish a year back there as well, but we’re really excited about the sockeye because they did historically come back in such high numbers and if we can open all of these basins, pools, and lakes we’ll be able to hopefully see the sockeye’s ability to successfully return to rear in there. We think that’s going to boost the entire population of the sockeye and again, just improve the overall health of our whole system with the increasing number of fish coming back.

Power of Partnerships

To many, these partnerships are surprising to see because historically the relationships between these various entities haven’t always been harmonious. Can you tell us about how these various groups have come together to put fish back in rivers and protect the watersheds where fish live? Also, what’s something you think your non-tribal partners have learned from working with YN Fisheries and what’s something you’ve learned from working with them?

In the past, we had a very rough relationship with the irrigators, states, and a lot of the federal agencies because of the battle that we had over water. You know, everybody has a need for the water… it’s important to our economy here in the basin but it’s also important to us and our Tribe. With these battles and going to court, even if you come out of those court battles victorious, you’re really not winning, it’s just causing delays and taking more time in the efforts being done.

We’ve had very good leadership fifteen years ago that met with irrigators and I’ve got to give credit to Phil Rigdon because he spoke to the Rosa Irrigation and basically said we have to work collaboratively. We can’t keep fighting each other in court, we have to come to solutions so that everybody wins. With that conversation it began the conversation for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan which is a unique gathering of people that used to fight over water to having developed a collaborative partnership that includes seven elements and goals that manage things like water storage, or our flows, or our fish populations. All of these elements are equal in priority to this group, and we work collaboratively on solutions rather than fighting over who has the rights. We want everybody to come out as winners and there’s a lot of big sacrifices still on all ends, but with this collaborated effort we’ve got a lot of great minds, we’ve got all these agencies working together that once were fighting each other and are now working for solutions.

We’re going to DC and asking for funding for this basin and showing the world what we can do when we collaborate and work together. With that, we’ve received a lot of funding for our fisheries work for the whole Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and I think that once we started having those conversations, a lot of these agencies that once used to fight us and not really understanding how important the water was to the Yakama Nation and how important the fish are to the Yakama Nation, really have a firm understanding of what it means to us and what it means to the Yakima Basin as a whole and the health of it. At the same time, we let them know that we’re irrigators, too; we have the irrigation project here in the basin, the Yakama Nation owns a farm (Yakama Nation Farms), so we understand the importance for the ag development as well. So, we have learned a lot from their requirements but at the same time I think that we’ve come to a mutual understanding that we need to come to solutions that benefit everybody and how to quit fighting over resources that you know we can’t spread that thin.

Basketball Coaching

That’s amazing. I’m looking forward to this project to report on how successfully the fish respond. My next few questions bring us to a different topic, which is your role as the head coach of the Wapato girls high school basketball team. What do you like best about this work?

Coach and Yakama Klickitat Fisheries Project Manager, Joe Blodgett with his Wapato High School girls basketball team.

Well, I started coaching about 20 years ago when my kids started playing basketball and then I got into high school coaching, just following in my dad’s footsteps. He was always a coach—either at the college level or high school level—and he really appreciated the way that you can impact people and teach life lessons through something that he enjoyed being around, and that’s basketball. But when you can get out there and reach the young people and really integrate what you’ve learned in your life and put it into terms within the sport that they enjoy doing, then it’s a great opportunity to go out there and culminate that positive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a good distraction for a couple months out of the year to really focus on those kids, but as I get older and responsibilities are increasing, it’s also very time-consuming.

Fisheries work and sports coaching seem like two very different worlds. Are there any skills or experiences you’ve had coaching that have helped you in your natural resources work?

With coaching, I really had to focus on my communication skills and how to talk to people and relay messages that were important to me that maybe they didn’t understand. When I became this new role as the YKFP Policy Coordinator, I was able to pull from that experience of communicating my thoughts and my philosophies and put it into perspective for others. So it was very beneficial to have that skill where I could go to meetings and have that similar type of mentality when trying to communicate the importance of our salmon work, our fisheries work, and everything that we’re doing and why it’s important to the tribe.

There are so many examples of high school sports participation helping students learn skills that help them succeed. In fact, CRITFC’s executive director Aja DeCoteau is a Wapato alumna who lettered on the high school basketball team and went on to do big things with her education and career. What skills and experiences do sports give these young people that helps them succeed in college or in the workforce?

Well, I’m fortunate to be coaching in Wapato— Go Wolves! Thank you Aja, for setting that great example. You know, just going out there and learning life skills, such as: how dedicated you have to be to something that you want to be successful in. The work ethic that it takes to go out there every day, six days a week, and three hours a day. As a young person, that’s a lot of time and a lot of commitment. The teamwork you learn while doing that and understanding your roles, I think that’s something that’s important that you learn with sports, but also how to overcome adversity.

We recently had an unexpected loss and our kids, you know, obviously were disappointed but it’s a good time to learn how to overcome that adversity and what you do in these types of situations because in life you’re always going to have obstacles… you’re always going to have things that knock you back. But how do you respond? Being able to work through those moments is an important type of characteristic to have as you become an adult whether it’s in school or your careers or even your relationships. That’s something that I continuously try to instill into our team. You truly learn so much through sports that you can use later on in life.

Ok, some final questions for the Wapato sports fans specifically: Last year the Yakama reservation lit up every time the Wapato girls played, and your team was considered a top contender for the state title and ended up with an impressive 3rd place. This year your team is just as buzzworthy. What have you been focusing on this season to help prepare your girls for another shot at the State title?

L to R: 1st Team All-League Deets Parrish (Yakama), 2nd Team All-League Kobe Johnson (Yakama), 2nd Team All-League Jordan Espinoza (Yakama), and 1st Team All-League Trinity Wheeler (Yakama).

Two years ago, we placed fourth at state, we were disappointed when we lost in the semifinals to a very good Lynden Christian team, but we ended up coming back and placing third the following year. That’s quite an accomplishment and I had to let the girls know how proud I was of them, and we did achieve a lot that year.

We graduated an important player KK Bass who is off doing good things at Western Washington University now, and to fill that role we knew that not one person was going to be able to do it, we had to do it as a team. Our team is taking that challenge and they’ve been outstanding in their performance and we’re looking forward to what’s out there in our playoff run. There’s never a given, right now we’re ranked in the top four in the state but that’s not saying much unless you can go out there and back it up on the court. It’s a big challenge for us but again that’s what sports is about. It’s the competition and how you how you prepare and how you overcome obstacles, so we’re looking forward to it.

You mentioned KK Bass (Yakama) and how she received a scholarship to play at Western Washington University this year, your daughter Andi Jo also had an impressive basketball career and played at Idaho State; what are you doing to help these girls reach that level of success and how meaningful is it that you get to help mold some of our Tribe’s top athletes and help prepare them for life after high school?

It’s been important, not only that we prepare the ones that are athletically gifted enough to go on and continue their basketball career, but also the process of helping prepare all of them for life after basketball as well. I think since I’ve been here I counted 12 students that have gone out to play college basketball at various levels, but it’s just as important to understand that they ‘re being prepared hopefully for the academic part of it because I’m just as proud of the kids that go off to college that don’t have scholarships and don’t play basketball but have used some of those lessons to go out there and succeed in getting their degrees.

I’m always so proud to see these kids come home and tell me they’re in their senior year or they graduated and some of them are actually teachers and counselors at the Wapato Schools now. So it’s fulfilling and rewarding to see the work that we put into these youth that they come back and have a meaningful and fulfilling life. That’s the bottom line is what can we do to help these kids succeed because if these kids come back and succeed it just makes our basin and our valley that much better.

Lastly, who are some of your exciting play-makers that we should be keeping tabs on?

We recently had the end of the season coaches meeting and we have two Yakama members, Deets Parrish and Trinity Wheeler who are first team all-league and represent the tribe at a high level in basketball talent, but also great kids. We also have Jordan Espinoza and Kobe Johnson, also Yakama members who were on the second team all-league so as far as representing our tribe, these kids have done a great job of doing that. They’re so gifted athletically but they’ve also put the work in, so I’m excited to see how far we can go with this team. There’s a lot of good quality teams out there so we understand that it’ll be a big challenge for us. Regardless of where we finish and how we end up, I’m just proud of the year that the kids have had. We ended winning the league championship I think we’re 22-2 right now and going in ranked number three in the state. So, the expectations are high, but I have confidence in our girls that they’ll come out and represent Wapato at a high standard.